Cowboys can't afford more bad contracts

April, 11, 2013
4/11/13
2:24
PM ET
The Cowboys are in talks with defensive end Anthony Spencer regarding a new contract.

Salary-cap space isn't a problem now; currently the team has a little more than $5 million to play with. But previous contracts are the issue.

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The Cowboys don't want to get caught with another bad contract for a player that becomes average after he signs it.

Starting right tackle Doug Free signed a four-year, $32 million deal with $17 million guaranteed in 2011. After two seasons, Free moved from left tackle to right tackle and has struggled mightily. He had to share playing time with Jermey Parnell late last season, and his play eventually improved. But overall, Free has struggled. And while a source said recently his status with the Cowboys was "secure," there are strong indications the Cowboys will ask him to take a pay cut. If Free declines, he most likely will be released.

After his breakout season when he took over for Roy Williams, wide receiver Miles Austin cashed in and signed a seven-year, $57.1 million contract extension with $18 million guaranteed.

The year he signed the contract, 2010, Austin picked up 1,041 receiving yards. He's failed to reach that total since and has battled hamstring injuries each of the last two seasons and has been surpassed by Dez Bryant as the best receiver on the team. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said this is a critical season for Austin in terms of his health.

The Cowboys value Austin's skills, but are frustrated by his inability to remain healthy over the course of the season. He also failed to catch a pass in both games against NFC East rival the Washington Redskins last season.

Guard Mackenzy Bernadeau signed a modest four-year, $11 million free agent contract last season with the Cowboys. He's undergone three surgeries since signing the deal. The Cowboys almost benched Bernadeau due to his poor play, and he was an average player in 2012.

Looking at these contracts, you could make the argument that the Cowboys made mistakes in giving them. At the same time, Free and Austin were coming off good seasons the year they received them but have been inconsistent since.

Bernadeau filled a need and the Cowboys got younger at the position. And while his contract isn't as bad, the team might have been able to do more with that $11 million.

When the team moves forward with Spencer, the goal is figure out if that career-high 11 sack season was the sign of things to come or just a man playing well in a contract year.
Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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